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On Wednesday, The Guardian reported that various civil rights groups and experts are warning that using the near real-time matching of citizens’ facial images risks a profound chilling effect on protest and dissent. The facial recognition system is capable of rapidly matching pictures of people captured on CCTV with their photos stored in government records to detect criminals and identity theft.

What is this facial recognition and identity system?

Last year in October, the Australian government agreed on establishing a National Facial Biometric Matching Capability and signed an Intergovernmental Agreement on Identity Matching Services.

This system was aimed to make it easier for security and law enforcement agencies to identify suspects or victims of terrorism or other criminal activities and to combat identity crime. Under this agreement, agencies in all jurisdiction are allowed to use this new face matching service to access passport, visa, citizenship, and driver license images.

The systems consist of two parts:

  • Face Verification Service (FVS): This is a one-to-one, image-based verification service that matches a person’s photo against an image on one of the government records to help verify their identity.
  • Face Identification Service (FIS): Unlike FVS, this is a one-to-many, image-based identification service that matches a photo of an unknown person against multiple government records to help to identify the person.

What are some concerns the system poses?

Since its introduction, the facial recognition and identity system has raised major concerns among academics, privacy experts, and civil rights groups. This system records and processes citizens’ sensitive biometric information regardless of whether they have committed or are suspected of an offense.

In a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Professor Liz Campbell of Monash University points out that “the capability” breaches privacy rights. This system allows the collection, storage, and sharing of personal details from people who are not even suspected of an offense. According to Campbell, the facial recognition and identity system also prone to errors:

“Research into identity matching technology indicates that ethnic minorities and women are misidentified at higher rates than the rest of the population.”

On investigating FBI’s facial recognition and identity system, the US full house committee on oversight and government reform also found that the system has some inaccuracies:

“Facial recognition technology has accuracy deficiencies, misidentifying female and African American individuals at a higher rate. Human verification is often insufficient as a backup and can allow for racial bias.”

These inaccuracies are often because of the underlying algorithms, which are capable of identifying people who look more like its creators. For instance, in the British and Australian context, it is good at identifying white men.

In addition to these inaccuracies, there are also concerns about the level of access given to private corporations and the legislation’s loose wording, which could allow it to be used for purposes other than combating criminal activities.

Lesley Lynch, the deputy president of NSW Council for Civil Liberties believes that these systems will have an ill effect on our freedom of political discussion:

“It’s hard to believe that it won’t lead to pressure, in the not too distant future, for this capability to be used in many contexts, and for many reasons. This brings with it a real threat to anonymity. But the more concerning dimension is the attendant chilling effect on freedoms of political discussion, the right to protest and the right to dissent. We think these potential implications should be of concern to us all.”

What the supporters are saying?

Despite these concerns, New South Wales is in favor of the capability and is legislating to allow state driver’s licenses to be shared with the commonwealth and investing $52.6m over four years to facilitate its rollout.

Samantha Gavel, the NSW’s privacy commissioner said that the facial recognition and identity system has been designed with “robust” privacy safeguards. Gavel said that the system is developed in consultation with state and federal privacy commissioners, and she expressed confidence in the protections limiting access by private corporations:

“I understand that entities will only have access to the system through participation agreements and that there are some significant restraints on private sector access to the system.”

David Elliott, NSW Minister for Counter-Terrorism said that the system will help prevent identity theft and there will be a limit to its use. Mr. Elliott said in state parliament:

“People will not be charged for jaywalking just because their facial biometric information has been matched by law enforcement agencies. The Government will make sure that members of the public who have a driver license are well and truly advised that this information and capability will be introduced as part of this legislation. I am an avid libertarian when it comes to freedom from government interference and [concerns] have been forecasted and addressed in this legislation.”

To read the full story head over to The Guardian’s official website.

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